That spring evening was one of the most
picture-perfect days for wadefishing that one could ever ask for. With
little effort, Leroy Lee and I had a beautiful mess of redfish tugging
on our stringers. But little did we know that moments before sunset
the scene would change into a horrifying nightmare.
The still water behind Breton Island was gin clear,
and stingrays could easily be seen congregating along the sandy sea
bottom. In itself, this wasn’t an unusual sight, for seeing
stingrays is as much a part of wadefishing as getting wet. Admittedly,
though, the sight of them did prompt us to a more deliberate
"stingray shuffle"--a tactical foot movement that scares the
pesky critters out of ones path.
However, shortly after moving to the back side of
the northern section of the island, terror broke loose: just before
sunset, while returning to the boat, Lee let out with a blood-curdling
cry. From 15 ft. away I could only watch in despair as he helplessly
tried to maintain balance, tossing his rod and reel and eyeglasses
into the air, only to land backwards into the water with a thundering
When Lee emerged, he was in excruciating pain.
"I’ve been hit!" he wailed, tears streaming down his face.
At this point I knew the unthinkable had occurred--he had stepped on a
The pain was relentless and inconceivable, shocking
to witness coming from a man as big and brawny as Lee. On the fringe
of panic, aware that I was his only assistance, I wasted no time
getting him back to the boat, though he could scarcely walk.
Once aboard and seated, I lifted his leg to view
the wound, and just above the edge of his tennis shoe near the ankle,
blood pumped out of a dime-sized hole like water running from a
wide-opened faucet. Given the situation, Coast Guard assistance was
imperative, rather than taking the chance of running back to the
launch and risking further complications.
With nervous sweat rolling down my face, I
contacted the Venice Coast Guard and briefed them on Lee’s
condition. In no uncertain terms they informed me that "70
percent of stingray victims go unconscious as a result of the
poisonous venom," and if necessary a Coast Guard helicopter would
be immediately dispatch for assistance. Upon hearing this, both of our
expressions went from that of solemnness to a sobering fright.
But fortunately Lee’s condition stabilized,
consequently placing a standby on helicopter assistance. But in the
meantime, the Coast Guard dispatched a rescue vessel to meet up with
us near the mouth of Baptiste Collette, so that Lee could be quickly
taken to the nearest hospital for treatment.
In the finale of it all, the injury kept Lee out of
work for several weeks, and it was months before he could walk
normally. According to his doctor, the barb almost exited the other
side of his foot, just missing the Achilles tendon. Traumatized by the
event, Lee claims he’ll never enter the water again.
To a person who has never been barbed by a
stingray, it’s difficult to imagine the kind of pain it must take to
humble a man to such lamentation, especially one noted for having high
pain tolerance like Lee. Even more tormenting was the lingering
question, "How could such an incident happen to a veteran
After questioning Lee on several different
occasions, he reluctantly admitted that he had stumbled backwards
while shuffling his feet. This is when the stingray stuck him. As
sobering it may be, apparently no matter how skillful or careful or
how long you’ve wadefished, anyone can become a potential victim due
to factors beyond their control.
As blatant as the facts seem, this shouldn’t
incite anglers to trade in all their wading gear for a good set of
golf clubs, just because wadefishing poses a potential hazard. After
all, I know a few golfers that have been hit in the head by flying
golf balls, among other objects, and still play golf--though there’s
no evidence to the rumors that both their game and thinking have
improved. Obviously, it is hardly arguable that the healthy fear of
any danger can serve as a protection. But in order to do so, the
danger must first be identified and understood. Without question, the
stingray is one species shrouded in fallacy, and frankly many anglers
aren’t aware of alternative protection.
One of the biggest fallacies is that stingrays
attack people anytime they’re encountered. However, evidence shows
that stingrays (a.k.a. stingarees or rays) are not categorized as
aggressive creatures and will avoid being stepped on whenever possible.
The epitome of this is seen in what takes place with rays and waders
at Stingray City, Grand Cayman Island in the Caribbean Sea. Here
vacationers can actually feed and swim with uncaptured stingrays that
have become accustomed to people. According to Stingray City tour
guides, the rays first established a relationship many years ago with
commercial fishermen who regularly fed them. As a result, the
stingrays, expecting to be fed, literally herd up and approach any
boat that anchors nearby.
Frequently, tour guide’s and tourist are
harmlessly stampeded by the rays as they enter the water to feed them.
To assure onlookers that the rays are friendly, tour guides lure a
with a piece of squid, lift it to the surface by hand and entreat
those brave enough to gently stroke it. Even with such assurance,
hysteria frequently erupts when herds of rays--some brandishing 5 ft.
wing spans and multiple stingers--surprisingly converge on waders
holding squid pieces in their hands.
While what takes place at this resort isn’t being
recommended here, it’s interesting to note that these are the same
species of rays that are found along our northern Gulf.
Though the stingray is basically skittish, and
incidents are usually the result of carelessness or ignorance, attacks
do occur more than people realize. In fact, statistics show that there
are 5,000 stingray attacks reported each year in the United States
alone, with injures ranging from minor stings to severe lacerations
compounded by major complications that can result in paralysis or even
Records of attacks are typically documented by the
U. S. Coast Guard. The incident with Lee, according to the Venice
Coast Guard, was one of five over a two-month period from the same
Ironically, though the stingray has an effective
defense system, it doesn’t retaliate on humans unless it is pinned
down or its life is threatened. Even if its wings are partially
stepped on, the stingray will generally flutter away without striking.
This fluttering sensation is sometimes felt underfoot by wadefishermen
and most often passed off as a flounder encounter, when likely it was
a stingray. If you doubt this based on the fact that you weren’t barbed,
ask yourself how many flounders are actually seen while wadefishing?
Compare this number to stingray sightings, and thank God you weren’t
Stingrays if poked, prodded or even smacked on
their backs with an object, normally will not retaliate but flee off
to safety. Likewise, if you are shuffling your feet and happen to
nudge a stingray that is lying on the bottom, its natural response is to
either beeline out of the way or circle behind. Though the stingray’s
reaction in both cases is to avoid being stepped on, the latter
maneuver can poses a problem if the wader for some reason
unintentionally steps backwards--as in Lee’s case.
"What you see is what you get" is an
expression that doesn’t always apply. This is true of the stingray
that seemingly has no visible barb stinger. But don’t be deceived!
According to Dr. Bob Shipp, Ph.D. professor of the University of
Alabama and authority on fishes of the Gulf of Mexico, the barb may be
concealed within a sheathlike tail wrapping, depending on its size and
species. The barb, or spine, according to Dr. Shipp, can grow back if
broken off, and is actually a modified scale, armored with recurved
serrations that are as sharp as razors. The stingray has the ability
to whip its tail up over its back and strike a victim. During the
strike the tail sheath covering instantly moves back to expose the
barb, located about one third the way down its tail (bluntnose and
Atlantic species). In some instances it can whip its tail around a
victim to exert a more powerful blow.
Never underestimate the penetrating ability of a
stingray’s barb, even
on the smallest of stingrays. The stingray’s barb is designed to penetrate
virtually all sorts of dense materials, including wood and leather.
And as unbelievable as it may seem, it’s been documented that large
stingrays are able to drive a barb through a boat’s wooden planks or
completely through a persons arm or leg.
According to Dr. Shipp, when a stingray strikes, it
either removes its barb entirely, or breaks it off inside of the
victim. When this occurs, doctors must probe the wound to make sure
all particles have been removed, so the injury will not result in
gangrene. In cases where the barb deeply penetrated, the wound must be
enlarged to make sure it is properly cleaned.
Aside from the pain and serious laceration caused
by the razor-sharp barb, which can sever arteries and possibly an
Achilles tendon, a poison is released that can produce a drastic
decrease in blood pressure, increased pulse, dizziness and possible
While there are specific measures one must take if
stung by a stingray, it’s reassuring to know that protection is available
for avoiding the incident altogether. Paul Perrin, a Texas
entrepreneur, claims to have invented bullet-prove leg guards out of
necessity after witnessing what a stingray did to one of his friends
while wadefishing on the coast of Mexico. His story is quite
reminiscent of what happened to me.
"After playing medic on a Mexican beach, I
realized I was too old to go through the same thing he did,"
Perrin said. So after experimenting with several materials, Perrin
decided to use ballistic nylon, the same material used in fabricating
bulletproof vests. The stingray leg guards, better known as
Walk-N-Wade leg guards, are designed for both comfort and protection.
They are constructed of two layers of ballistic cloth and one layer of
nylon lining and are conveniently designed to fit over and around
whatever type footwear you prefer, including waders. For added
protection, a stainless steel inner sole can be purchased to fit
inside your footwear. Perrin claims that in rare cases a stingray, if
its tail is stepped on, can drive its barb straight up through the
bottom of your foot. Wearing both the leg guards and the sole
protectors eliminate the possibility of injury from just below the
knee down. Perrin claims most injuries to wadefishermen occur below
As far as wondering if the leg guards
(stingray guards / protectors) really work,
Perrin has put them to the ultimate test. As bizarre as it may seem,
Perrin beached an average-sized stingray, stood on top of its back and
let it strike him nearly 30 times. He walked away unscathed.
The cost of the
stingray guards (protectors) is a very small price to pay for
the elimination of a lot of pain, lost wages, and doctor bills.
As Perrin put it, "You gotta be a damn fool to go in the water